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Israeli Defense Minister Gantz Has One Final Mission

The race to become Israel’s next military chief is entering its last stage, but history shows it ain’t over till it’s over

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Benny Gantz and IDF chief Aviv Kochavi at a ceremony in December.
Benny Gantz and IDF chief Aviv Kochavi at a ceremony in December.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Defense Minister Benny Gantz will try to complete at least one more mission before the final collapse of the governing coalition: the appointment of the Israel Defense Forces’ next chief of staff. On Wednesday, his office published the order of his meetings with the three major generals up for the post.

The tête-à-tête with Eyal Zamir is set for Saturday evening, after Shabbat, with Yoel Strick set for Tuesday and Herzl Halevi for Wednesday. The order doesn’t reflect Gantz’s preference; for months, the view in the General Staff has been that Gantz wants Halevi, who's the deputy chief of staff.

But in these matters nothing is final until implementation, as was proved by the so-called Harpaz affair that canceled the appointment of Yoav Gallant as chief of staff in 2011 (with Gantz getting the job). Today, the threat to Halevi’s appointment comes not from his rivals but from the clock. For more than a month Gantz pondered when to launch the process, largely out of concerns about offending the current chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi.

Last week, Gantz informed Kochavi that he was moving ahead, before announcing the start of the process a few days later. But the time he lost might disrupt his plan. The expected fall of the governing coalition, which would result in a caretaker government, could call into question the validity of the appointment if it’s not yet official.

Gantz and deputy IDF chief Herzl Halevi, center, in April.Credit: Elad Malka

Gantz’s people are saying he’s not trying to create a fait accompli before the possible return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu, but to prevent chaos in the military and make a decision before the country enters a new election spiral. Gantz vividly remembers the bizarre constraint that was forced on the police, who were headed by an acting commissioner for two years during a period of three general elections. The defense minister is determined not to repeat that farce.

Kochavi has said he doesn’t want his term extended; he’s set to leave on January 1, at the end of four years minus two weeks as chief of staff. (The rotation date with his predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, was set while the army was busy uncovering the tunnels dug by Hezbollah on the Lebanese border.)

As was to be expected, Gantz’s announcement generated allegations of political opportunism, as well as an orchestrated attack against Halevi, with Zamir denoted as the preferred candidate.

For the Bibi-ists, the matter doesn’t appear to be the thwarting of a specific appointment or the promotion of a different candidate. Halevi’s alleged status as left-leaning and Zamir’s as right-leaning haven’t been proved at all. The aim is to lay down a red line: Only Netanyahu has the right to make such appointments, just as he’s the only one authorized to govern.

The partisan sentiment was well expressed this week by Likud’s David Amsalem, who, speaking with state broadcaster Kan, promised to break the left’s bones once the right returns to power. And if it reassures anybody, he said this would be done “democratically.”

Maj. Gen. (res.) Sharon Afek, a former military advocate general, last year.Credit: Ilan Assayag

A direct line connects the attacks on Halevi to the remarks by Amsalem and the wilder assault this week on the planned appointment of Maj. Gen. (res.) Sharon Afek as deputy attorney general. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced that he’ll submit the appointment of the former military advocate general to the cabinet Sunday.

The Bibi-ists and some of the settlers were immediately up in arms. Channel 14 listed all of Afek’s sins: He’s openly gay, lives in Tel Aviv, and is a graduate of the Wesner Foundation that’s an enemy of the people. He’s also, heaven forbid, a cousin of Michal Herzog, the president’s wife.

Also mentioned was an unfortunate remark by Naftali Bennett when he resigned from the governing coalition in 2016: The IDF’s fighters are more afraid of the military advocate general than they are of Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza.

There’s one more thing about Afek. As military advocate general, he courageously led the case against Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot to death a wounded assailant even though he no longer posed a threat. That’s Afek’s original sin in the eyes of his defamers.

It’s also worth noting the behavior of then-Prime Minister Netanyahu in that episode. At first he went along with the condemnation and the pledges to investigate by Eisenkot and the defense minister at the time, Moshe Ya’alon.

But Netanyahu quickly did an about-face, under pressure from his son Yair and the reactions on social media. Instead of dissociating himself from the event, Netanyahu phoned Azaria’s father and even considered inviting the soldier’s parents to visit him and his wife. That suggestion was nixed by Ya’alon, who quickly fell out of favor and saw his term end.

To a degree, there’s even a link between the Azaria affair and the corruption cases against Netanyahu that are outraging his admirers. In the soldier’s case, most of the facts were clear on the day of the incident in March 2016; footage was also released.

That didn’t stop Azaria’s supporters from providing fantastical theories that would ostensibly exonerate him (he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and served nine months). Quite similar arguments, the same ardor and sometimes the same people are now leading a campaign to prove Netanyahu’s glaring innocence.

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